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ARLINGTON, Va. — A UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter is lost, six known dead. A Super Cobra attack helicopter crashes in central Iraq, killing two of the Marine pilots. A CH-46 Sea Knight Marine Corps helicopter crashes. Twelve dead.

Taken individually, in a vacuum, the news of aviation safety coming out of Operation Iraqi Freedom might not look so good. But that would be a bad assumption, military aviation experts said.

“In no uncertain terms are the rates we’re experiencing for all types of airframes out of the ordinary,” said Lt. Col. Benjamin Moody, the executive assistant for the Marine Corps’ safety division.

“We don’t want to lose any airframe during an average year, but [the flight hours] coupled with the stressful environment in which they are operating in Iraq and Kuwait — this is not necessarily surprising nor particularly alarming,” he said. “It is very much to the credit of the pilots and their training and skills that they are not doing more damage to the aircraft than they are.”

With more than 25,000 sorties flown since the war to topple the Iraqi regime began — roughly 2,000 a day — an overall mishap rate of aircraft, manned and unmanned, is roughly .05 percent, or less than one in every 1,900 sorties, said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brian Orban, a spokesman at the Coalition Forces Air Component Command in Saudi Arabia. The figure does not include air missions from aircraft attached to land-based or special operations forces, he said.

“We’re doing fantastic,” said Marine Col. David Kerrick, deputy commander of Naval Safety Center in Norfolk, Va.

The mishap rate for the Navy stands at 2.26 mishaps per 100,000 flight hours, and at 3.48 per 100,000 for the Marine Corps, Kerrick said. Last year, the rate for the two services combined was 2.28 per 100,000. While the nation’s military was at war in Afghanistan, pilots did not face the same threats as they do in Iraq, a nation that possesses the real ability to shoot U.S. aircraft out of the sky, he said.

The mishaps to date haven’t all been the result of enemy fire. One aircraft might have been downed by friendly fire.

The Defense Department is investigating the loss of a Navy F/A-18C Hornet from the USS Kitty Hawk, which might have been shot down Thursday by a U.S. Patriot missile.

“It’s still under investigation and nothing has been ruled in and ruled out at this point,” Navy Lt. Herb Josey, a spokesman at Central Command’s forward headquarters in Qatar said Sunday. “And the pilot has not been recovered yet.”

The Army has logged five Class A helicopter crashes as “accidental” since the end of February, when U.S. forces were amassing in Kuwait in preparation for the conflict. Class A accidents are defined as those in which there is death or permanent disability to the crew and/or the aircraft sustain damages of $1 million or more.

Regardless, mishap rates in general have dropped across the board, and for the Navy and Marine Corps, the rate is down more than half, from 5.28 per 100,000 flight hours back in 1981, Kerrick said.

The reasons are many, he said.

“We see what the guys and girls are doing over there in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and it’s a testament to their training. There has been tremendous progress made in aircraft reliability and it’s also seen in the quality of the maintainers,” Kerrick said. “Across the board in the Navy and Marine Corps, there has been a commitment to safety … and we’re seeing the results of that. That’s why they’re doing such a great job.”

The pilots face tremendous challenges, from environmental to psychological, Moody said.

“They’re doing it under the cover of night, wearing night vision goggles, and there’s a certain amount of natural stress that comes from just doing the operation they’re doing,” he said.

And rising temperatures — now into the triple digits — increases the chance that something could go wrong, Moody said.

“The margin for error becomes narrower and the chance of having problems, even in normal operations, becomes greater,” Moody said. “But what we’re seeing is absolutely more than just luck. … They go through operations, day by day, flying against bad weather and stress, and don’t make mistakes. It’s a testament to good training.”


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